Monday, November 28, 2011

The Lady Said No (MGM, 1930)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Lady Said No, a William Haines vehicle from MGM in 1930 with some impressive talent behind the cameras — the director was Sam Wood and the writers were A. P. Younger (story), Sarah Y. Mason (script — three years later she and her husband Victor Heerman would write the beautiful adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women for George Cukor and Katharine Hepburn at RKO) and Charles MacArthur (dialogue) — and some pretty good supporting cast members in front as well, all lost in a story that ends up more infuriating than entertaining because of the downright boorishness of Tom Ward, William Haines’ character. It opens with him driving a beautiful white convertible down a country road with a nice-looking girl by his side, and just as she’s warning him not to drive so recklessly lest they crash, his reckless driving lands them off the road and into a tree. The car runs O.K. after that but its left front fender is completely ruined; the car pulls to a stop in front of the girl’s house and it turns out that it was her car: she picked him up on the side of the road and he somehow persuaded her to let him drive. He breezily informs her that she can always get another fender, and then he returns to his own home. It turns out he’s a recent college graduate (though the sort of student who seems to have learned nothing at school except how to party) from a fairly substantial and well-to-do family: father Samuel (William V. Mong), mother (Clara Blandick, later Auntie Em in The Wizard of Oz), sister Alma (Phyllis Crane), younger brother Eddie (Frank “Junior” Coghlan), and put-upon housekeeper Polly (Polly Moran).

The movie is little more than a series of parties, including one in which Tom inflicts all his college friends on his parents on the night of their wedding anniversary (which Tom’s forgotten until his sister reminds him, and even then he has no idea of which anniversary) and another that seems to be taking place at a roadhouse in which all the ordering has to be done in bizarre code because Prohibition is still in effect. When he’s not being an utter boor he’s — well, Tom doesn’t really do anything else in this movie but be an utter boor, and when he’s not being an utter boor around people his own age he’s successfully fending off any and all offers of work, including the one from Kendall (Charles Giblyn), a banker friend of his father who wants to hire Tom but wants him, of course, to start at the bottom. Tom finally finds himself loosely employed by a Wall Street brokerage owned by Sutton (Wilbur Mack) at which the star young broker is his old college enemy, J. Marvin MacAndrews (Ralph Bushman, son of Francis X. Bushman and later known as Francis X. Bushman, Jr.) and he’s got the hots for Sutton’s secretary, Mary Howe (Leila Hyams), even though she keeps saying no to him. (Charles and I couldn’t help but think, given what we now know of William Haines’ sexual orientation, that the film should have been titled The Lady Said No Because She Found Out He’s Gay.)

Eventually, more because the plot has to resolve itself sometime than because this outcome is determined by anything we’ve seen up until now, MacAndrews fires Tom from the brokerage house but Sutton rehires him — in the meantime Tom’s father has died, thereby plunging the family’s fortunes and forcing them to move into a dowdy apartment and subsist on Tom’s salary from whatever sort of job he can get — and MacAndrews sees a way to get rid of him once and for all by sending him out on a sales call to the unsellable Hettie Brown (Marie Dressler), who has a hatred for bond salesmen and a supercilious butler (the marvelously dry-faced Wilson Benge) who specializes in getting rid of them. Oddly, Turner Classic Movies showed this film as part of a tribute to Dressler even though she’s only in one sequence — though it’s the funniest and most entertaining part of the movie: Tom bluffs his way into Hettie’s house by posing as her doctor, then gets her drunk on what she thinks is a tonic but is really just alcohol, and after a marvelous physical comedy routine that reminds us that Dressler, already a major vaudeville and Broadway star, launched her film career in Tillie’s Punctured Romance opposite Charlie Chaplin, and finally after quite a long bit of comic suspense he gets her to sign the pre-written check and appoint him as her financial advisor.

The ending is an odd premonition of The Graduate (indeed, both films are about recent college graduates and their quirky romantic involvements) in which Tom crashes the church where Mary and MacAndrews are about to be married — and Tom literally kidnaps her from the wedding and drives her away in MacAndrews’ car, ending the film as he began it in somebody else’s nice car and a good-looking woman at his side. Brash effrontery was William Haines’ established screen persona — his career declined when sound came in (The Lady Said No was one of the last films released in both silent and sound versions) less because his voice was too queeny (he didn’t sound all that butch but he didn’t sound all that nellie either) than because he was getting too portly (at least in part the doing of his partner, Jimmie Taylor, who was an excellent cook whose fantastic meals for them made it hard for Haines to keep down to camera-friendly weight) and just visibly too old for nonsensical scripts like this — but the main problem with The Girl Said No is that the Haines character doesn’t grow, change or learn from his experiences. Unlike the film Way Out West, which he made the same year and which cast him as a carnival barker subjected to tough love on his inamorata’s ranch, The Girl Said No leaves him pretty much the same as he went in and one feels sorry for Leila Hyams’ character being stuck with him at the end.